Mental Illness 101: Understanding the Basics

What is mental illness and how it is diagnosed?

Good mental health is an essential part of having a healthy life. Understanding emotions, thoughts and how our minds function are integral keys to sustaining mental wellness but we don’t always find ourselves as well as we feel we should be.


Discovering that we are more than just feeling a bit sad or worried can be quite frightening and overwhelming but it’s important to remember that around half of us experience some form of mental health concerns at some point in life.

Just like any physical illness, mental illness has a range of treatments available and must be treated with the same sensible attitudes we have toward illnesses that affect our bodies in order to reduce stigma and increase wellness for more people in Australia.

Sane Australia defines good mental health as “…more than just the absence of systems. It is also the ability to manage life competently and deal with the challenges in a reasonably robust way. When we find ourselves continually overwhelmed beyond feeling sad, lonely, confused or disappointed, it is possible that seeing a health professional might reveal a more serious concern.”

You can learn more about the causes of mental illness in this article but following are some of the more common disorders:

Anxiety Disorders

These can be classified as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety, Agoraphobia with more classifications depending on the complexity of the person’s diagnosis.


Mind Health Connect describes a person with anxiety as “…someone who is unable to stop worrying about seemingly unimportant things, perceiving situations as much worse than they actually are. It interferes with the enjoyment of life and disrupts work, relationships and self-perceptions.”

With more than 14% of Australians diagnosed with anxiety every year, it is crucial that we work toward understanding the different classifications, how each person is affected by their anxiety and be supportive in their approach to recover.

Anxiety disorders can be treated with antidepressants but proceed with caution. There are as many people in the pro camp as there are in the against camp as antidepressants can cause a host of other physiological problems for the person taking them. They can, however, help the person to gain control over their anxiety and assist in the recovery process alongside therapy and counselling.

Depressive Disorders

Many people experience depression at one time or another in their lives. It becomes a disorder when the person has been subject to a longer than expected interval of time and are unable to continue with their general everyday routine.


Depression is one of Australia’s largest mental health illnesses and depending on the individual’s symptoms can be classified as:

  • Major Depression
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Psychotic Depression
  • Peripartum or Postpartum Depression
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder
  • Situational Depression
  • Atypical Depression

As you can see, these classifications show how complex depression can be. Getting the right diagnosis is vital because each type of depression requires a unique approach to recovery. Check out this article from WebMD for more details about depressive disorders.

Mood Disorders



Bipolar is probably the most commonly known mood disorder and is often viewed as the happy/sad dynamic. The truth is that for people living with Bipolar 1, 2 or Cyclothymia, the range of emotions is complex and can switch from one extreme to the next in a very short range of time.

The most common types of mood disorders move beyond Bipolar and include major depression, dysthymia (dysthymic disorder), bipolar disorder, mood disorder due to a general medical condition, and substance-induced mood disorder. Here is an overview from John Hopkins Medicine:

  • Major depression. Having less interest in usual activities, feeling sad or hopeless, and other symptoms for at least 2 weeks may indicate depression.
  • Dysthymia. This is a chronic, low-grade, depressed, or irritable mood that lasts for at least 2 years.
  • Bipolar disorder. This is a condition in which a person has periods of depression alternating with periods of mania or elevated mood.
  • Mood disorder related to another health condition. Many medical illnesses (including cancer, injuries, infections, and chronic illnesses) can trigger symptoms of depression.
  • Substance-induced mood disorder. Symptoms of depression that are due to the effects of medication, drug abuse, alcoholism, exposure to toxins, or other forms of treatment.

Depression and mood disorders are very interrelated and it is important to seek the assistance of a medical professional such as a psychologist and psychiatrist to accurately diagnose the condition. As most mood disorders are managed with a combination of therapy and medication it is crucial that the right diagnosis be made in order to reduce the effect of the wrong kind of medication or therapeutic approach.

Psychotic Illness


MedLine Plus provides a simple and helpful explanation of psychotic illness:

“Psychotic disorders are severe mental disorders that cause abnormal thinking and perceptions. People with psychoses lose touch with reality. Two of the main symptoms are delusions and hallucinations. Delusions are false beliefs, such as thinking that someone is plotting against you or that the TV is sending you secret messages. Hallucinations are false perceptions, such as hearing, seeing, or feeling something that is not there.”

The most common type of psychotic illness is Schizophrenia and people suffering from Bipolar Disorder can also experience psychotic episodes. Treatment can include medication and therapy to assist the person in living a more manageable life.

Does everyone experience mental illness?

Not everyone will experience mental illness but if you do, you may experience a single episode or experience symptoms over the course of your lifetime. It really depends on a number of factors that your health professional would work through with you during your assessment.


The good news is that there are a number of wonderful and very successful treatments available including one to one counselling, professional therapy through psychologists, medication, lifestyle medicine, and personal development courses. Support is growing throughout the country as more people work toward breaking the stigma of mental illness and open the conversation publicly and this will continue as long as we fearlessly break open the silence and share our stories.

Some Great Support Networks

The following communities and organisations do a fantastic job at breaking the stigma, educating us and supporting both the cared for and carers and families walking through the mental health system. There are plenty more, but these are my top go-to choices for support and information.

Sane Australia



Black Dog Institute

A Black About the House

Children of Parents with Mental Illness (COPMI)


If you are currently experiencing a level of concern with your mental wellbeing, or have a loved one who you are worried about, you can access a number of resources here.

If you are experiencing a serious level of concern we recommend you call 000, Lifeline or Beyondblue or book an appointment with your personal GP to discuss your situation.

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